Uber Gets Off Scot-Free After Fatal Tempe, AZ Accident

Uber managed to evade criminal charges over a Tempe crash from a year ago that saw one of its self-driving Volvo XC90 SUVs kill a jaywalking woman as part of what's believed to be history's first autonomous driving accident with a pedestrian fatality.

Arizona prosecutors concluded the initial investigation of the incident less than two weeks before its first anniversary and decided not to press charges. As announced by the office of Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Sullivan Polk that was in charge of the proceedings, no further action is planned on its part.

Regardless, the authorities recommended the office of Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery conducts its own probe of the accident, claiming jurisdiction based on the place of the crash. It's presently unclear whether the said official has any intention to follow that advice.

High on the list of unexpected death causes: The Voice 

Uber safety driver Rafaela Vasquez was inside the the crashed vehicle during the incident but video evidence suggests she's been watching an episode of "The Voice" via Hulu instead of paying attention to the road at the time. The circumstances of the accident don't guarantee Ms. Vasquez would have been able to react in time even if she had been personally operating the vehicle, let alone just idly sitting in the driver's seat in the middle of the nigh, with one eye on the road and another on the car's self-driving instruments.

While that doesn't negate the irresponsibility demonstrated by her error, it does represent significant mitigating circumstances. In practice, state authorities are unlikely to charge her with manslaughter. The case against her is much more solid than that that would place any liability on Uber's part and with the ride-hailing giant being officially cleared, Ms. Vasquez is unlikely to face prosecution.

The victim, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, was jaywalking on a poorly lit par of a Tempe street in the middle of the night when Uber's custom-fitted autonomous SUV hit her. Uber overhauled many of its testing practices in response to the incident but despite that move and the fact it won't be facing criminal charges, some previous reports suggested the accident was avoidable from the perspective of its R&D division whose tendency to loosen regulations every time it's about to miss enabled the dubious environment wherein safety issues were an ongoing concern.

The self-driving system of the crashed car also detected the woman full six seconds before hitting her but its emergency brake was disabled at the time of the incident, according to a preliminary investigation conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The show must go on

The ordeal spelled the end of Uber's autonomous driving operations in Arizona but the company's overall goal remains unchanged. While the firm previously claimed it intends to commercialize self-driving services in the U.S. in 2019, that timeline now appears unrealistic.

Google spin-off Waymo is way ahead of its rivals in that regard, though it has yet to attempt scaling its limited operations. Ultimately, the show will go on, and self-driving vehicles are set to become a commercial reality sooner rather than later.

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Dominik Bosnjak

Senior Writer
Dominik started at AndroidHeadlines in 2016. He’s approaching his first full decade in the media industry, with his background being primarily in technology, gaming, and entertainment. These days, his focus is more on the political side of the tech game, as well as data privacy issues, with him looking at both of those through the prism of Android. Contact him at [email protected]